American agricultural leaders watched and learned from the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, and a handful of states, including Alabama, have put those lessons into practice in an identification program aimed at keeping livestock safe, the food supply secure and investments valuable.
The new program, passed by the Alabama Ag Board in October, identifies cattle over 18 months of age so instances of disease can be tracked back to where the animal may have come in contact with the disease and with other animals.
“We are talking about traceability,” says Dr. Tony Frazier, state veterinarian for the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. “And that’s one thing that can greatly reduce risk for the producer.”
The federal government is working toward a program, but the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries isn’t the type to wait for someone else to take action. Alabama officials spent a year working with producer groups on the specifics of the identification rule and came up with a plan close to the proposed federal rule, but with some basic differences.
The federal rule will require cattle that are 18 months of age and older to have official ID when moved across state lines and a health certificate. Alabama’s rule says these same cattle 18 months and older, which is breeding age, must have official ID at change of ownership.
“There’s a lot of latitude in who is required to provide the ID; we don’t get into the weeds of that,” Dr. Frazier says. “If someone is buying or selling cattle that are breeding age, either the buyer or seller must get an official identifier on the animal, and they can get that identifier free from us at the department.”
The Department of Agriculture and Industries still has the metal tags used when cattle were tagged to help eradicate instances of brucellosis and tuberculosis. The USDA provides those at no cost. The tag can be attached to the cow’s ear and the numbers are recorded. Producers and stockyards are not required to report every time they see the tag, but the identification number allows the department to trace back to the initial source.
Dr. Frazier says advanced technology is also available for those cattlemen interested in an identifier chip. However, that technology is currently expensive and not funded by the state.
A key aspect of the program is its importance to the export market, which is where the beef industry is experiencing the most rapid growth. Foreign distributors want assurances that the U.S. beef supply is safe and consistent.
“The ID program allows us to announce to our export markets that we have a traceability system,” Dr. Frazier says. “If we had some true disease outbreak, even the old-time diseases, we can respond and do our job without the ID system, but it takes us longer to complete the epidemiology. With traceability, we can do that faster, and that means we can recover faster and our producers can get back to business faster. That ultimately means a secure food supply.”